With loanees Dan Kemp and Ben Woodburn having departed, and Keshi Anderson seemingly out for the rest of the season, it’s clear to see where Blackpool need to strengthen in the January transfer window. New signing Ellis Simms provides a new option up front and he was joined by free agent Kevin Stewart over the weekend, but where else do we need extra recruits? Here, George Wincott takes a look at the key gaps in the current squad.
Gaps in attack
It’s no secret that we’re not breaking teams down despite our possessional advantage. If looking to be serious contenders for promotion to Championship, the Seasiders have got develop the ability to kill off games when 1-0 up, to avoid missing out on valuable points. Quality in the final third has been has been a clear issue raised by fans – only Bristol Rovers and Northampton have scored fewer than us as shown by the table below, which is bleak reading. New signing Ellis Simms adds extra firepower, but will also need support from those behind him in midfield.
Despite the deficiencies in front of goal, Pool have one of the better squads in the division and below I’ve taken a look at each player in detail to see where the other true gaps are.
The Seasiders have looked fairly solid in the goalkeeping department so far this season, with club captain Chris Maxwell maintaining consistent form and presence in between the sticks. The Welshman has improved massively from the early stages of the campaign, which saw the entire team endure a poor start to the League One season. Despite not going down as one of the divisions taller keepers, Maxwell continues to dominate the penalty area from opposition plays and set pieces.
One noticeable skill is the keeper’s ability to punch the ball clear of the danger zone, something that has been picked up on by Pool fans in recent months, as the keeper continues to impress. Maxwell also possess fantastic athleticism, and has earned his teammates some valuable points through his quick reaction saves.
One impressive save in particular, was the quick improvisation from Maxwell in the dying embers of our home tie against Oxford United (above). With a high speed, dangerous ball incoming, Maxi scrambled towards his near post, managing to tip the ball onto the woodwork and away from any potential danger. This save demonstrated his quick thinking, as well as his athletic ability, in order to earn a valuable point for the Pool. He’s one of the better keepers to appear in a Pool shirt for a few years.
The backup keepers for the first half of the season have been young and developing keepers Alex Fojticek and Jack Sims. Sims has been on the scene since 2018 since moving from Southend United, but has very much been a developmental prospect and is still only 20 years old – a particularly young age for a goalkeeper. Having endured a 31-game loan spell with non-league Lancaster City in 2018-19, Sims has warmed the bench for the last couple of seasons although he did make two senior appearances last term. It’s no secret that breaking into the first team as a goalkeeper is an extremely difficult task, and takes special talent. With Maxwell becoming such a stalwart in between the sticks, and then emergency loan goalkeeper Sam Walker doing the same on a temporary basis over Christmas, it looks as though Sims will be sat on the sideline for an even lengthier period of time. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him filtered out the door again in the next few transfer windows – either on loan or permanently.
The other alternative is Alex Fojitcek, who joined in last summer on a one-year deal, with an option to extend, in aid of creating competition for Maxwell in the Blackpool goal. Another young goalkeeper at the age of 20, he has struggled to make a name for himself. Fojitcek has failed to make an appearance for Blackpool this season, and it will be interesting to see whether he’s valued enough by Critchley to earn an extension to his deal which ends this summer.
The club has opted for only one senior keeper in the squad with the option for an emergency loan should such an issue arise, and it’s likely that will continue in the second half of the season.
The Seasiders are extremely well-equipped when it comes to the defensive area of the pitch, with 10 solid first team defenders at the club and plenty of competition for each place. In comparison to other teams in the league, I believe that Blackpool definitely have a defensive line that is more than capable of challenging for promotion when in form and is arguably our strongest area of the pitch.
The left back position was tightly held by experienced full back James Husband when the season began. Impressive form in the previous campaign saw Husband become a fan favourite and one of the first names on the team sheet. He has always offered a physical defensive presence through his full blown challenges, and his tricky ball play going forward. One downside to his game however, is his occasional rash decision making that has become an issue in the Seasiders’ back line already this season.
Husband was red carded two times in quick succession, paving the way for recently acquired Demetri Mitchell. Mitch can most commonly be recognised for his electric pace going forward, but we have all come to realise he’s better going forward than defending. He’s certainly one of the best attacking full backs I’ve seen in tangerine, but in my opinion his wreckless defending can sometimes let him down.
Last but by no means least is Luke Garbutt, who joined in the summer from Ipswich Town, having made 28 appearances for the Tractor Boys last season. Garbutt has hugely impressed since coming into the side, displaying his attacking presence through his ability to drive the ball forward and attack the opposition. He also possesses the ability to drive the ball across the penalty area, and into the danger zone when attacking.
This deadly technique has created numerous chances for in recent weeks, including an assist for our first goal at home to Hull City. In recent weeks Garbutt has cemented his position in the Blackpool left back position, offering much needed experiences to a strong developing back four. In my opinion Garbs has to be one of the first names on the team sheet going forward, and certainly has to be the primary choice for the left back position.
The main centre back position has been largely occupied by Marvin Ekpiteta for the first half of the campaign, alongside either Daniel Ballard or Daniel Gretarsson. I’ve got nothing but praise for Ekpiteta, after the leaps and bounds he has come on after such a poor start to the season. During the first seven or eight games he looked reckless and frail, and struggled to get ball down and play. You could see he lacked confidence in the heart of defence.
But suddenly it just clicked for him, his confidence grew, and ever since he has displayed his outstanding ability as a reliable rock at the back. It’s been solid performance after solid performance for Marvin, he looks so well organised and really holds his presence in that back four. His communication is also fantastic, as big Marv continues to look like a real leader in the heart of defence, and certainly has the traits of a future first team captain.
Blackpool lacked a second out-and-out centre back up until the introduction of Daniel Ballard on loan from Arsenal in October. Since arrival the Northern Ireland international has been an absolute stalwart in the heart of the Seasiders’ defence, a player with an immense potential, and opportunity to make it to the very top. The 21-year-old might just have the best aerial ability of any Blackpool centre back in recent years, as he is so often able to head the ball away with ease.
Ballard is quite easily capable of playing Championship football, and has shown his ability to compete against the likes of Erling Haaland when on international duty. The Seasiders are extremely lucky to have extended Ballard’s loan until the end of the season, as it’s very likely he will be playing at a higher level of football in the next few years given his rapid development.
Icelandic centre half Daniel Leo Gretarsson was brought in on a two-year deal to offer competition for Ballard and Ekpiteta. With Ballard’s loan expiring in the summer, Gretarsson looks to be the long term option for the Tangerines, after some impressive performances this season. Gretarsson looks like an organised and well equipped defender in the Tangerines’ back line, and continues to prove he is more than capable of filling the role, after a smooth transition into English football. He’s keeping both Ballard and Ekpiteta on their toes and there’s true competition for places at the heart of defence.
Jordan Thorniley is also a registered first team centre back for the Tangerines, but is yet to make a league appearance this season. Despite arriving from Sheffield Wednesday with a good reputation, and some good cup performances including recently against Premier League Brighton, the 24-year-old struggles to make our bench most weeks. With the defence squad depth looking good I wouldn’t be surprised if he departed in January, as he doesn’t look to be a part of Neil Critchley’s plans. That said, he’s not a bad fourth choice to have on our books.
As far as I’m concerned Blackpool are in great shape when it comes to the centre back position, and don’t need to strengthen over the January transfer period – unless Jordan Thorniley does depart.
The right-back position is another one of great depth, but has been largely occupied by Ollie Turton this season, otherwise known as Mr Reliable. Turton continues to impress as a solid right back, and has made that position his own for the past couple seasons in tangerine. Having made nearly 120 appearances for the Pool, Turton provides a cool head in the Blackpool back line, as he continues to own the right back position with his composed defending ability.
Ollie continues to improve his game, and this season his attacking and overlapping runs have developed massively from previous seasons, in which he would be hesitant to move up the pitch. As far as I’m concerned Turton is a solid, hard working full back, who is improving game by game, and fully deserves control over that right back spot.
The other right back in contention is Jordan Gabriel, on loan from Nottingham Forest. So far the full back has managed nine appearances in tangerine, with five of those coming in cup matches. It’s safe to say it has been quite difficult for the on loan man to fully break into the team and prove himself ahead of Ollie Turton, although the 22-year-old did manage a goal in an impressive FA Cup performance against Harrogate Town. I think Jordan’s certainly a player with great pace and power that we haven’t seen to his full potential, and hopefully that’s something we can explore in the second half of the season.
The third right back at the club is Teddy Howe, whose only appearances this season came in the Papa John’s Trophy. Another player I wouldn’t be surprised to see leave Bloomfield Road in an upcoming window.
As far are defenders are concerned, we’re certainly looking well equipped heading into the second half of the season, and in my opinion have a defence worthy of challenging for promotion.
Blackpool started the season with a midfield three of Ethan Robson, Keshi Anderson and Grant Ward. Despite the poor start to the campaign, the midfield three showed promising signs of intent, alongside some excellent individual performances.
Robson has been an excellent addition to our midfield, offering a surge of attacking intent. He signed on a free in the summer from fellow League One Side Sunderland, and has proved he is more than capable of being a top performer at this level. Robson is fantastic at driving the ball forward, and possesses some of the best long-range passing capability in League One.
It’s hard not to notice Ethan’s incredible pass accuracy, and I’m certain those long cross-field switches are definitely not something that can be learnt overnight. Robson is one of Blackpool’s most technical assets, and his time at Sunderland has given him a good upbringing in the game. He also offers unique creativity, and for me he must be a regular starter in the Blackpool team for the remainder of the season.
It’s mixed emotions for me when it comes to Grant Ward – a player who has offered some excellent attacking performances this season, but also one who can so often be caught as a passenger on the pitch. Ward is a player who struggled to make a name for himself last season, often playing a passive role when called into action.
However, this season Ward has shown that he is more than capable of producing some quality performances, and has brought a new dynamic into the Blackpool midfield through his tight pass and move, as well as chipping in with a few goals. Grant has shown he is a quality player at League One level, and possesses a great attacking flare with his ball carrying ability, although I think consistency is key if he is to be a permanent starter.
MJ Williams was relatively unknown when joining Blackpool from Rochdale in the summer, but quickly established himself as a hard working, box-to-box midfielder. Williams quickly replaced Anderson in the Blackpool side after the Tangerines were on a poor run of form, and required a box to box midfielder to act as an invisible wall in midfield.
Despite not being the most exciting footballer to watch run around a pitch for 90 minutes, Williams is a hard working and committed midfielder, who from the games we’ve seen always offers 100% on the pitch. Unfortunately the midfielder picked up an injury away at Burton on Halloween, which has ruled him out of the team ever since. Since that day the limelight has been somewhat taken by midfield maestro Kenny Dougall, who continues to steal Seasiders’ hearts. Hopefully there’s good news to come soon about MJ’s injury and we can see him back in a Blackpool shirt.
Sullay Kaikai is a man whose performance levels have not quite matched those of last season. Despite a standout performance away at Fleetwood this season, Kaikai seems to have lost his attacking spark, and can often be caught miss placing rushed passes, or making the wrong attacking choices. There’s no denying Sullay is a player of real quality, and we’ve seen him do some magical things in a Blackpool shirt.
I feel as though he’s a player that desperately needs his confidence back, and hopefully that will come once we start playing free flowing football again. He’s certainly a player that can make things happen on the ball, and all Blackpool fans will be hoping to see some more of that attacking flair in the future.
Where do we start with Kenny Dougall? has been an absolute revelation since coming into the Blackpool midfield, making himself a regular starter ever since. Dougall offers quality in both the attacking and defensive areas of midfield, whether that be moving the play forward with his excellent range of passing, or closing down opposition passing lanes and intercepting loose balls in those tight midfield areas.
Dougall is the complete midfielder, and it’s clear to see why, having registered nearly 40 appearances for Barnsley at Championship and League One level combined. Ever since Dougall slotted into our midfield he’s looked at ease, and will happily run himself ragged after opposition. Kenny has quickly become a fans favourite, and continues to shine in Blackpool’s midfield. His energy levels are second to none, and he’s always offering 110% on the pitch until he’s huffing and puffing. Blackpool are lucky to have captured the signing of such a quality midfielder, one that is more than capable of playing at a higher level, and is arguably one of the best in League One.
Matty Virtue, another fantastic player who holds extremely similar qualities to Dougall. A box-to-box, goal scoring midfielder, with incredible fitness levels. Virtue had previously established himself as a fans favourite, and has worked tirelessly as a midfield general for the Tangerines.
Matty has the ability to travel with the ball from one side of the pitch to another, and to lead the counter charge. This is something that became apparent in the 4-1 win at Bradford City a couple of seasons ago, with the midfielder racing from one end of the pitch to another, before expertly hammering home into the back of the net. Throughout his time by the seaside Virtue has been a midfield dynamo, although a hamstring injury has meant that we have endured the majority of this season’s campaign without him.
With a positive Covid-19 test ruling him out of further action, patience has to have been a virtue for Matty this season. But with a new long term contract agreed, Seasiders fans can certainly expect to see more of the 23-year-old in tangerine when back to full fitness.
Super CJ Hamilton!
It’s safe to say that CJ Hamilton has been our star man this season, quickly establishing himself a major fans’ favourite amongst the tangerine faithful. Hamilton signed from Mansfield Town in the summer with little reputation, but has blown away all expectations with his electric pace and razor sharp footwork. I’m without a doubt in my mind that CJ is by the quickest player in League One, and has shown this season just how much he can utilise that pace to tear apart opposition.
Hamilton is the pioneer of all good Blackpool counter attacks, using his speed and agility to navigate his way past opposition defenders. He can quite easily carry Blackpool from our own box to opposition territory within seconds, and provided some crucial moments in a Blackpool shirt so far this season. CJ’s double at home to Swindon this season was the pick of the bunch for me, as he came up with two excellently taken goals, to spur us to a 2-0 win. Both of which highlighted his immense on and off the ball movement and ability. Unfortunately The Seasiders have been dealt with a killer blow with CJ Hamilton’s lengthy hamstring injury, that has led to him being sidelined in recent weeks. This has been a difficult hurdle to overcome, as we seem to lost our creative spark without CJ in the side, after successive league defeats.
But despite being a huge loss, Blackpool have shown they can be capable of creating chances without Hamilton, after an impressive victory over West Brom. Hamilton is the real deal, and will prove to be a massive loss as the season goes on. Hopefully Bez Lubala can adapt to the CJ Hamilton dynamic in the coming weeks, a player with burning potential.
In November 2020 midfielder Rob Apter was promoted from the youth team to the first team. Having only made one appearance so far that came in the Papa Johns Trophy, Rob is certainly a developmental player to look out for in the future.
Additionally, these eight have been recently joined by Kevin Stewart, formerly of Hull City in the Championship. Another defensive midfield option, the 27-year-old will give significant options to our already impressive midfield which has the perfect balance of box to box, defensive solidity and creativity – capable of handling even the most significant injury or COVID crisis. That said, out wide there is potentially room for additions – given Dan Kemp and Ben Woodburn have both departed on loan. We saw a 3-5-2 formation at Brighton, which allowed Garbutt and Gabriel to play further forwards, and that may be an option for us in the second half of the season as we look to get some of our key performers into the team on a regular basis.
Jerry Yates arrived from Rotherham United in the summer as The Seasiders’ primary answer to the departure of Armand Gnanduillet. Having scored 13 goals on loan at Swindon Town last season, Yates joined the Seasider’s for a sizeable fee, one which may not have previously been possible under different ownership.
With Armand having scored 15 league goals last season for the Tangerines, the expectation was certainly on owner Simon Sadler to find a suitable replacement. Neil Critchley has been looking to develop a more creative style of play this season and the industrious Jerry Yates was the man identified to lead the line. Despite a slow start for him on the goal scoring front, he has linked up well with the rest of the Blackpool side as they overcame a poor start to the season. Yates has eventually picked up from where he left off last season in terms of goal scoring, developing a nice little partnership with fellow striker Gary Madine.
The pair have been dubbed “York and Cole” by fans, referring to the famous strike partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole of Manchester United, showing the fans admiration for the pair. So far this season Yates has managed eight goals in all competitions, gaining the respect of Seasiders fans along the way.
Although this isn’t an incredible return, Yates has shown his qualities in other aspects of attacking, such as ball work, movement and high attacking work rate that have impressed both the manager and the fans. Although he still has his critics, Yates is still a work in progress, and I believe he will continue to thrive and develop under Neil Critchley.
Gary Madine is the perfect example of turning over a new leaf! Madine was a player who was brought in by former Blackpool boss Simon Grayson and joined The Seasiders in January 2019. The striker joined with a high reputation, having previously scored a plethora of goals at Championship and League One level, with Blackpool fans expecting a influx of goals to help us over the promotion finish line.
Last season, Madine only managed two goals in the second half of the League One campaign for The Seasiders, and was hugely disappointing for Blackpool fans. Madine wasn’t playing for the shirt, more the wage packet, and often looked deflated and fatigued on the pitch.
However, this season has been a completely different story, with the striker thriving under new boss Neil Critchley’s philosophy. This season Madine looks like the striker we were bargaining for when we signed him last January, and has been an exceptional asset in the Blackpool attack. The main difference for me is the massive improvement in Madine’s attitude and work rate. He no longer looks sluggish, and instead looks hungry and determined to find the back of the net. His hold up play has also been fantastic, and he has often proved a handful for opposition defences this season under Critchley.
Madine is excellent at causing havoc in the opposition box, and has also shown he can still find the back of the net, with eight goals in all competitions this season for The Seasiders – four of which came in this year’s FA Cup. The man renowned by Blackpool fans as Gary Goals, he looks like a player who’s really being utilised to his full potential in recent weeks, and I hope we don’t see that coming to an end any time soon, with the striker entering somewhat of a purple patch. If the striker can continue his goalscoring form he might just be the key to the Seasiders play-off hunt.
Keshi Anderson is arguably our most underrated attacker, and has shown just what he is capable of over the course of the season. Anderson is often overlooked due to the sheer amount of quality in the Blackpool midfield, however I believe he offers a unique attacking flare from box-to-box. Anderson holds both great physical and top of the range finishing in his attacking midfield role. His versatility is also something to be admired, with the 25-year-old also playing as a winger this season – and excelling in that role.
Anderson has often found himself on the bench due to the immense squad depth at Bloomfield Road. He was certainly a player to watch out for in the second half of the season, but given his recent injury, it looks like he’ll be missing for the remainder of the campaign. Anderson is a fantastic asset when looking to freshen things up, here’s a reminder of what he can do in front of goal with his exquisite finish at home to Hull City this season.
Bez lubala arrived as a relatively unknown player amongst Blackpool fans, having spent last season in the division below. However, after doing some digging, it was much to my surprise that Bez had almost equalled the goals tally of star signing Jerry Yates in the same division last season. Yates ended the season on 13 goals, and Lubala on 12, meaning that both forwards looked like a real promise, despite Lubala’s late, unanticipated signature. It was also refreshing to see the level of firepower brought in by Neil Critchley heading into the new campaign, as the influx of new signing’s filled the tangerine faithful with a hope of achieving promotion to the Championship.
But once the season began it seemed as though the focus was very much on Yates, with Bez Lubala given little to no playing opportunity, even during times in which Yates was struggling to find the back of the net. Lubala has been given opportunity off the bench, but has been extremely patient and trusting in boss Neil Critchley, despite failing to play a full ninety minutes in a Blackpool shirt this season. Yes, he missed a sitter against Bristol Rovers… but Lubala is a player who looks like he possesses a real attacking flair, through his tricky footwork and aggressive dribbling when brought onto the field of play.
Given CJ Hamilton’s recent injury, I’d love to see Lubala utilise these strengths in his game, and potentially develop into the wide roll once filled by Hamilton. There’s no secret that it’ll be difficult to replicate the form and movement of CJ Hamilton, but I seriously think Lubala can fill this better suited role and prove effective for the Seasiders going forward. Like Madine, Lubala seems to be growing in confidence in recent weeks, after an impressive FA Cup performance at home to Premier League West Brom, which saw him grab the assist for the first goal, and I really hope the second half of the season will be his time to shine.
Oliver Sarkic is a player I wouldn’t be surprised to see leave Blackpool in the upcoming transfer window. The 23-year-old signed from Burton Albion in the summer, and has only managed four appearances – all coming off the bench – for the Pool this season. It’s fair to say that when coming on, Sarkic has looked ineffective and lacking ideas, and given the fact there are four hungry strikers above him in the pecking order, I can’t imagine that we’ll be seeing him feature on a regular basis.
Blackpool have recently completed the signing of 20 year old striker Ellis Simms, on loan from Everton until the end of the season. The Oldham-born striker has been the target of numerous English clubs, and arrives at Bloomfield Road with an incredible goal record at academy level, netting over 50 goals in 80 appearances at under 23 and under 18 level for the Toffees. The loan recruit has left the fanbase hugely excited by the prospect of fresh and exciting goalscorer, one who could potentially be the man the push us forwards towards the promotion finish line. You can see my views on the new frontman in my video below.
Overall, I think there is certainly room for improvement in a slow gelling Blackpool side. Despite posing a decent amount of firepower, Blackpool are still one of League One’s lowest scoring sides, and if planning to make a late promotion push, we need to add more goals to our game. Hopefully Ellis Simms can fill some of that gap, and it’s likely that there will be at least another signing to accompany the current forward line.
There are plenty of other dangerous sides that will quite happily take up that sixth position spot, and with Blackpool only being eight points off the play offs, yet sat in 16th position, it shows that there are an abundance of teams that are capable of finishing in the top six. As far as defence and midfield are concerned, a fully fit Blackpool squad shape up just as good as any side at the top half of the division.
However the injury absence of CJ Hamilton might be potential reason to bring in another creative winger, one that also can provide competition for Hamilton when he returns.
We have often struggled to see out football matches when leading this season, and the ability to get that second goal has often been a struggle. Having an out and out goalscorer will certainly add more of a threat to The Seasider’s attacking line, and could potentially be the cutting edge that The Tangerines need to make it into the League One play off positions.
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Images used: https://www.blackpoolfc.co.uk/teams/first-team/